Hugo Rifkind

Is looking at a nude photo of Jennifer Lawrence really the same thing as stealing it?

4 September 2014

1:00 PM

4 September 2014

1:00 PM


‘If you click on Jennifer Lawrence’s naked pictures,’ said the headline on the Guardian’s website, ‘you’re perpetuating her abuse.’ That gave me pause. Even though I haven’t. In all honesty, I haven’t even had the opportunity, and I thought I actually followed quite a lot of invasive perverts on Twitter. But if I had, and I had… well, just clicking? Really?

The creepy mouth-breather who hacked them, sure. Definite abuse there. Might as well be hiding behind her curtains. And the people who circulate them. ‘Stand on this hillside,’ they could be saying, ‘and point your binoculars over there. Look! Look!’ And the people who, well, enjoy them, in the traditional manner that nude internet pictures are enjoyed; that’s definitely bad too. But a click? Just a wee click?

It’s true and, at once, not true. It’s a bit like the established wisdom about nasty pornography; that he (it’s always a he) who looks is as complicit in the crime as he who makes. It’s a good argument this, and a healthy thing to believe. But it’s another question, and a dangerous one, whether it’s actually right. It’s no small business, after all, making your own nasty pornography. It’s not something you can just knock out, if you’re of that horrible ilk, when you fancy.

Planning, subterfuge, malice, a list of countries with malleable extradition laws; all these things are required. Which seems on the face of it quite a lot worse than a click. ‘I can’t think of another instance where doing something so bad is so easy,’ writes Jamie Bartlett, in his excellent new book The Dark Net, and he’s quite right. We are used to thinking of terrible crimes requiring a bit more oomph and agency. This is more like suddenly, on our own desks, having the nuclear button.

Lots of nuclear buttons, in fact, and lots of opportunities to press them. Taking naked pictures of myself isn’t my thing, weird old fart that I am. I’d worry, among other things, about how much to zoom, and whether one ought to put something else in shot (a coin? A marrow?) to convey scale. Still, it does seem to be a trend. Weirdly enough, I don’t remember all this talk of abuse and violation when pictures of the penis of New York congressman Anthony Weiner flooded the internet, or the other week when there emerged that truly alarming photo of something that looked like a distended haggis on Ian Botham’s Twitter feed, though he denied posting it, saying he’d been hacked. It may be that people are just more kindly disposed to a beautiful young actress. If one is abuse, though, then I guess the others are, too.

Now I think of it, in fact, there’s possibly a fair amount of abuse in that last paragraph. Indeed, if it’s abusive to click upon a stolen picture of Jennifer Lawrence, then is it not also a bit abusive to get people talking about them, these intimate snaps she’d rather have kept to herself, on the website of the Guardian? Or, if not, where does it stop? Wrong to click on a link, but fine to click on a link about clicking on a link? Or what?

I try not to be a fan of brainwashing, even when it is designed to make people stupider than me agree that I’m right. Half of me, the perturbed half, sees this ‘clicking is a crime’ business as just that — benevolent, sure; even essential, maybe — but brainwashing nonetheless. The other half, though, wonders if that’s just old-school analogue thinking, in an ever more digital world. Everything is easy these days. And a bad thing does not get less bad because it is easy to do.

We are all grown mighty, that’s the thing, and will grow mightier yet. The web has put vast powers at our fingertips — powers which were once the preserve of publishers, magnates, spies and the possessor of the Ring of Gyges. And I suppose that all we can do in the end is our utmost not to be vicious, evil, or total wankers.

Dutch courage

I’ve been in Scotland these past few weeks, gearing up for the referendum. You’ve heard about that? It hasn’t passed you by? Oddly, of all the people to whom I spoke — and there were hundreds — the one who sticks in my mind was an incredulous Dutchman. I don’t remember the exact words he said to the ‘yes’ campaigner at his door, because I didn’t write them down. But the gist was this.

‘You’re mad,’ he said. (Or didn’t, but nearly did.) ‘And selfish. Selfish and mad. Have you seen how screwed up the world is? All the evil? Ukraine? Isis? Boko Haram? Holland can’t do anything about that — we’re tiny. Britain can. And you want to leave it. Because you don’t care about anybody except yourselves. How do you sleep?’

Not an argument I’d heard before. Doubt Scots would really have gone for it. But my God, it sounded good on that front step.

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